Golas and Granitas
“Summertime, and the living is easy”. Gershwin’s 1935 lyrics surely don’t seem appropriate in current times. The sweltering heat, not to mention the double whammy of the coronavirus pandemic and the devastation caused by Amphan has left everyone a little short of breath. In this series, let us look at frozen desserts, little pleasures that somehow make this almost intolerable summer a bit more bearable.
Frozen desserts involve, unsurprisingly, freezing a flavoured liquid till firm. Depending on the flavour base you start with, you can get a variety of possibilities, and we’ll get to those in a moment. The technique involved in the freezing and preparation also plays a major role in determining the texture of the final product. While the flavour base can have infinite variations, all frozen desserts falls under two broad categories: water-based and milk-based.
Most water-based frozen desserts employ a fruit base based mixed with water and sugar, and frozen. The simplest example of this kind of frozen treat is the popsicle. Take some kind of fruit base, add it to a mould, put a stick in it and freeze till solid, and you’re done. While the actual freezing technique is the same as that for making ice, a popsicle isn’t nearly as hard as a cube of ice. It is softer, and you can bite into it. You can’t do that with an ice cube without chipping a tooth. It isn’t the technique that’s different, it’s the base.
One of the biggest players in the freezing game is sugar, which affects not only the flavour but also the texture. Sure, it adds sweetness to the base, but a more important role it plays in frozen desserts is to lower the freezing point of the base. It works at the same principle as adding salt to snow to make it thaw quickly. A popsicle base has a lower freezing point compared to plain water and therefore doesn’t set rock-hard. Of course, you could start off by freezing plain water and adding the flavour later to create something taken out of the pages of our childhood.
A plastic tube filled with crushed ice and coloured with a garish orange potion that stained our tongues and cooled our souls, the so-called “pepsi” was the pocket-friendly alternative to packaged popsicles. And then there were the golas, India’s version of the snowcone, which comprised crushed or shaved ice adorned with syrups of orange, rose, khus and kala khatta, which seeped through the crystals and intermingled at the edges to create stunning visual spectacles. The myth that “pepsis and golas are made with drain water” hasn’t been adequately tested out in any peer reviewed articles as far as I know, but this evergreen warning was probably what made it all the more appealing.
A short aside on two classic gola flavours. Khus or vetiver grass has thick, aromatic roots with a sweet, woodsy flavour. It forms the basis of a refreshing summer drink. It forms the basis of a green syrupy concoction which is a staple in sharbats and golas. And then there’s my favourite, kala khatta. It literally translates to black and sour, and is a syrup made using jamun. A kala khatta gola will be invariably flavoured with black salt and lemon juice. One of the petit fours in the tasting menu at Rooh is a pastille based on the familiar flavours of kala khatta, and was simply spectacular.
A dessert which straddles the popsicle and the gola is an Italian classic that is now famous the world over. Although it starts off with a flavoured base like a popsicle, it is given an entirely different treatment giving it a final texture more reminiscent of a snowcone. The traditional granita alla Siciliana is actually very much like the Indian streetside gola. With its large ice crystals that provide an amazing texture, they can be flavoured with anything from lime to strawberry-balsamic to espresso. A refreshing lime granita as a palate cleanser between meals or an intensely bitter espresso granita with a dollop of lightly whipped cream to cap things off, it is the ideal fancy summer treat.
The granita starts by pouring the base into a flat tray and freezing it. Because of the sugar, it never freezes rock-solid and whilst at this semi-frozen state, it is scraped using a fork to create large, crunchy crystals. This process is repeated a couple of times till you get a fluffy consistency, ready to be spooned into bowls and served. The texture of the ice crystals is the USP of a good granita. Adjusting the sugar in the base helps you tailor the texture to your liking : less sugar makes it more crunchy and icy, while more of it makes it a bit more slushy. I personally prefer the former when it comes to granitas.
Another fancy dessert goes the other way, opting for a silky, smooth texture with no ice crystals in sight, creating pure flavour that coats your tongue in a chilly embrace. It is undoubtedly the most demanding water-based frozen dessert to make at home because it requires an ice cream machine (more on that next time), although cheat versions can be made without it, but nothing beats the depth of flavour and lusciousness of a good sorbet. It is churned in an icecream machine and usually has a higher sugar content than a granita, making it smooth and luscious. I remember the first time I had a sorbet, a heftily priced scoop of intensely red raspberry sorbet from a Haagen Dazs outlet, and one tiny spoonful was enough to justify the price.
The flavour of raspberry exploded in my mouth. Our taste buds become less sensitive to flavours at lower temperatures, but this sorbet mix packed such a punch that no amount of frigid temperatures could mask the intensity of flavour, a problem with many mediocre icecreams. And when the flavour is this potent, you don’t need a lot. This and the kala khatta gola lie on opposite ends of the frozen dessert spectrum, but the impact the two had was one and the same.
Sorbets are great as both a palate cleanser and dessert. Of course, not all sorbets need to have the same silky-smooth texture. Even when slightly icy, due to a lower sugar content in the mix, a sorbet is still markedly less textural than a granita. Yet this slight roughness around the edges makes it ideal as a palate cleanser, like the lime mint sorbet at the center of the tasting experience at Ottimo. It was less smooth than the guava chilli sorbet in the tasting menu at Rooh. But that lack of a creamy finish is perfect to cleanse the palate; something rough to “scrub” the tongue clean. The guava sorbet was much silkier in texture, and it was the slight hit of chilli that acted as the abrasive in this case.
For a dessert however, the silky texture and rounded flavours is just what you need. The two-ingredient chocolate sorbet from Ottimo is technically dairy-free and counts as a water-based dessert, and is undoubtedly one of the most perfect ways to end a meal. Of course, chocolate works best in the context of dairy-based desserts, which is what we will deal with in our next part. So tune in next time as we explore the incredible world of dairy-based frozen desserts.